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Einstein in Berlin


Albert Einstein’s Berlin years (1914-1932) were set against a backdrop of tumultuous times. The 20th Century had opened with great hopes, but soon developed into an era of unparalleled disaster. Einstein was present at the events that shaped the journey from the outbreak of the First World War to the portents of the next one. When he arrived in Berlin, after accepting an invitation from Max Planck to join the illustrious Prussian Academy of Sciences, he was already a well-known figure in the scientific community. Although he was born in South Germany, Einstein insisted on retaining the Swiss citizenship he had acquired during his studies in Zürich. As a convinced pacifist, he wanted to avoid conscription and he campaigned for peace throughout the First World War and was a founder member of the left-wing German Democratic Party (DDP) after the November Revolution.

Entrance to the former Prussian Academy of Sciences at 8, Unter den Linden

Einstein’s position at the Academy offered him the perfect conditions for his work and, despite later appointments as a university professor and director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (now the Max-Planck Institute), he had few teaching commitments and was able to complete his General Theory of Relativity (1916), subsequently proved by the solar eclipse of 1919. Two years later, in 1921, Einstein was awarded The Nobel Prize for Physics. He was now an international celebrity and in the years that followed he travelled extensively to give lectures and went on to lay the foundations for quantum theory.  

Einstein in 1921

When he moved to Berlin, Einstein had been married for 12 years to Mileva, a Serbian physicist.  She left him shortly afterwards, taking their two sons with her. At the time, it was rumoured that Einstein was having an affair with his first cousin, Elsa Löwenstahl and in 1919, three months after his divorce from Mileva, he married Elsa and went to live with her and her two daughters in her parents’ Schöneberg flat at 5, Haberlandstraße. Elsa stayed with Einstein until her death in 1936, but she too endured years of his womanising and periods of complete isolation while he locked himself in his attic study – nicknamed ‘the tower’ – to concentrate on his work.

Einstein with his first wife, Mileva

In 1929, Einstein accepted the mayor’s offer of a house in the country, a gift from the city in honour of his fiftieth birthday. He spent much of the year at this summer home in Caputh by the Templiner See, sailing, working, playing the violin, and entertaining illustrious guests such as artist Käthe Kollwitz and Charlie Chaplin and several prominent political figures.

Einstein with Elsa at the country home in Caputh, outside Berlin

As the political climate in Germany changed, Einstein became more aware that his Jewish background meant that he was at risk of anti-Semitic attacks. In December 1932 left Berlin for a lecture tour in America and after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Einstein never returned to Germany. In February and March 1933, the Gestapo repeatedly raided his family’s apartment in Berlin. His country house in Caputh was converted into a Hitler Youth Camp and his sailing boat was confiscated. In May 1933, Einstein’s works were included in the Nazi book burnings on Bebelplatz in Berlin when Goebbels proclaimed: ‘Jewish intellectualism is dead’. The Nazi regime even offered a $5,000 reward for Einstein’s capture. It was hardly surprising that Einstein then gave up his German passport. After two years as a refugee during which he spent some months in England, he ended up accepting a position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he lived with his family as an American citizen until his death in 1955.

A recently discovered letter from Einstein to his first wife mentions Hitler’s insanity

Einstein’s time in Berlin is commemorated in several modest ways. His house in Haberlandstraße was destroyed in the war, but there is an information board in front of its site, and I have described this area in more detail in my blog on ‘Berlin’s Jewish Switzerland’ (September 2018). There is also a memorial plaque on Einstein’s home at 33, Ehrenbergstrasse in the Berlin district of Berlin where he lived in 1914 when he first arrived from Zurich.

Memorial plaque at 33, Ehrenbergstrasse

Prenzlauer Berg has named one of its local green areas ‘Einsteinpark’. It was created in the East Berlin of the 1960s and now contains two interesting art installations. One is the granite ‘Einstein Pavillon’ by Yvonne Kohlert (1996) comprising of a series of stones carved with mathematical formulae. The other is a set of two bronze sculptures by Anna Franziska Schwarzbach titled ‘Einstein’ (1998) depicting Albert Einstein in advanced age engaging in conversation with the young Albert.

‘Einstein’ in Einsteinpark

But the most notable tribute to Einstein’s years in Berlin is the Albert Einstein Science Park in Potsdam. Here you can find the iconic ‘Einstein Tower’ (1924), an astrophysical observatory and one of the first major projects by Erich Mendelsohn, well-known for his expressionist architecture in the 1920s. The design of the tower resembles a spaceship and Einstein is said to have diplomatically described it as ‘organic’. In 1933, having discredited Einstein and his theories, the Nazi regime re-named the tower ‘The Institute for Solar Physics’. It was badly damaged in the bombing during the war but has been reconstructed and is still a working solar laboratory.

The Einstein Tower (photo by Jean Molitor)

In the tower’s entrance area is a bronze bust of Einstein which was originally in one of the rooms of the observatory. When the Einstein Tower lost its name and status as an independent institute in 1933, the pictures of Einstein were removed, and the sculptures were supposedly melted down. After 1945 it was discovered that the portrait bust had been rescued by member of the staff and hidden behind some crates. As a homage to Einstein a single stone (German: ‘ein Stein’) is placed in front of the bust.

Rescued bronze bust of Einstein

Einstein’s name will never be forgotten in Berlin – not least because of the restaurants and cafés that bear his name.  I have described the original ‘Café Einstein Stammhaus’ in my blog ‘A Traditional Treat’ (March 2017). This Viennese-style coffee house and restaurant first opened in 1978 in a neo-renaissance villa originally the residence of a Jewish sewing machine factory owner. The second largest Café Einstein at 42, Unter den Linden, opened in 1996, also has a historic feel. The waiting staff in traditional dress serve breakfast, lunch and dinner and it is a popular meeting place for politicians and the media world. I love the dark wood booths and the framed black and white photographs on the walls – not to mention  the Wiener Schnitzel and Apfelstrudel.

Café Einstein, Unter den Linden

There are also 20 branches of ‘Einstein Kaffee’ in Berlin which serve only serve coffee, cake, salads and snacks. Whatever the location, you can always rely on a stylish interior and a good cup of coffee. I am sure that Albert Einstein would be pleased that his name has such a positive vibe in 21st Century Berlin. 

The beautiful Einstein Kaffee building at 166, Friedrichstraße


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One Response

  1. Fascinating stuff Penny! I had no idea that Einstein was a womaniser, it’s hard to imagine. Love the Einstein tower. xx

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